REVIEW: Breaking Up Is Hard To Do In Charming Celeste and Jesse Forever
Films like Celeste and Jesse Forever and The Five-Year Engagement feel like the start of some new subgenre — these unromantic semi-comedies about the microdramas of nice, emotionally inarticulate people struggling their way through relationships. Both feature comedic actors working with material that's not intended to be all that funny, and both take angles on relationships that don't usually make it to screen — a prolonged breakup leading up to a divorce and a prolonged, unhappy stretch leading up to a wedding. And both cruise on the charms of their lead actors, in this case Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg, holding together just enough to be satisfying while also leaving you wishing they had a little more to them.
Jones doesn't just star in Celeste and Jesse Forever, she co-wrote the screenplay with Will McCormack (who also appears onscreen) — The Vicious Kind's Lee Toland Krieger directs. It's an interesting role for an actress to sculpt for herself, and the fact that Jones worked to make it happen speaks to the dearth of complicated, flawed female characters that are out there. Celeste, the character Jones plays, has definite hangups, realistic ones that the film explores with almost too much enthusiasm — she can be hard to spend time with as she strikes out at her friends and herself in the process of actually getting in touch with her emotions. Despite the title, the film's far more hers than Jesse's (Samberg) — this isn't so much a rom-com or even a break-up movie as it is a portrait of a woman getting her unearned certainly about life shaken up a bit, and coming to terms with her own imperfections.
Celeste and Jesse have been best friends since high school, and when the film starts we see them together in a car, sharing old jokes and the conversational shorthand of people who've known each other for a very long time. They go to dinner with their friends Beth (Ari Graynor) and Tucker (Eric Christian Olsen), who are prepping for their own wedding, and we learn that all this adorable couple behavior isn't cute, it's actually a little weird, because Celeste and Jesse have been broken up for six months — and while they're ending their marriage, they still spend all their time together.
Celeste is a trend forecaster (she's written a book called Shitegeist) and Jesse is a mostly unemployed artist, and the two are gleefully co-dependent (he's moved out — to the guest house in the back yard). Not having gotten to see them as they were breaking up, we're left to extrapolate their problems from the fallout as their precarious set-up crumbles under the weight of denial and miscommunication, as Jesse obviously thinks Celeste is working up to taking him back while she's enjoying having him around but not having him too close. When he finally realizes they're done, she comes to terms with the fact that maybe she's not, but by then he's gotten inextricably involved with someone new.
Celeste and Jesse Forever has an affectionate, grounded take on Los Angeles, which comes across like a tangibly pleasant, lived-in place on screen (still a relative rarity for the city in movies), one in which you can run into friends at furniture stores and miss your dinner reservation at the Chateau Marmont. The film blends in bits of the showbiz industry in a matter-of-fact way — Celeste gets set up on a date with a 22-year-old male Gap model, and reluctantly takes for a client a teenybopper pop star (Emma Roberts) whose music she can't stand. There's a specificity to its cultural references and the locations its characters frequent that's pleasing, and that's more natural than the sometimes strained bits of quirkiness that mark relationships like the one between Celeste and her business partner Scott (Elijah Wood), who tries to be her self-awarely sassy gay bestie.
Jesse, placed in a situation where he has to man up, proves himself capable of turning into the responsible adult Celeste claims she always wanted him to be, while she crumbles, claims she's okay, tries to date when she's not ready (the omnipresent Chris Messina is her best self-deprecating suitor) and smokes a lot of non-medicinal marijuana. Jones proves wonderfully willing to put herself in humiliating situations, whether overindulging at an engagement party or going on a wince-worthy dinner with a guy (Rich Sommer) whose name she can't get straight. But her toughest scenes are the ones in which she undercuts people again and again, telling one he isn't ready for fatherhood, another that he obviously isn't the right match for her, and assuming (and needing) Jesse's new girlfriend to be dumb.
The way the film and its lead actress are willing to let the character fall on her face repeatedly and realistically is impressive, though the general formlessness of Celeste's crisis makes the process, well, a lot like witnessing someone you're fond of insist on making terrible mistakes over and over again. Celeste and Jesse Forever creates a handful of likable and very human characters, so much so that halfway through you want the film to stop putting them through the emotional wringer so that you can just spend time with them.